William Self: Fox TV to the rescue

William Self title card on an episode of Batman, produced by 20th Century Fox’s television unit

Another in a series about unsung figures of television.

In the early 1960s, things were not looking good at 20th Century Fox.

The 1963 film Cleopatra, while popular with audiences. It sold 67.2 million tickets in the U.S. and Canada. That was more than Goldfinger’s 66.3 million.

But Cleopatra was so expensive, it had no chance of recouping its costs. The studio was going to need a bailout.

The bailout came from its television division, headed by executive William Self, a former actor.

Self’s TV unit took an inventory of the properties Fox held and began developing television versions.

As a result, in the fall of 1964, Fox came out with Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (based on the studio’s 1961 film produced by Irwin Allen); Peyton Place, based on a 1956 novel, made into a 1957 Fox film; and 12 O’Clock High, based on a 1948 novel and made into a 1949 Fox movie.

All three were part of ABC’s 1964-65 schedule. Also, Fox produced Daniel Boone for NBC for that network.

Soon after, Self’s Fox TV unit was the home of other Allen shows as well as the 1966-68 Batman series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. The latter got off to a rocky start as test audiences were confused by the campy approach.

Self’s tenure at Fox lasted into the early 1970s. He became a producer (something he had done before joining Fox), whose credits included 1976’s The Shootist, the final John Wayne film.

Self died in 2010 at the age of 89.

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The man who hired Goldsmith, Williams and others

Stanley Wilson’s title card (along with others) on a first-season episode of Universal’s The Name of the Game

Another in a series about unsung figures of television.

The blog’s post this week about the television factory run by MCA Corp.’s Revue Studios (later Universal Television) didn’t have room to get into some details. This post is aimed at remedying that.

One of Revue-Universal’s stalwarts was Stanley Wilson, who ran the music department.

In that capacity, he hired composers who had to work under tight deadlines. Wilson hired some of the best, some of whom would become major film composers.

One of Wilson’s hires was Jerry Goldsmith (1929-2004). Goldsmith already had credits at CBS. But the network let him go.

Stanley Wilson’s title card (along with others) on an episode of Thriller, whose composers included Jerry Goldsmith.

Wilson wisely assigned him jobs at Revue-Universal. Some of Goldsmith’s best television work was on the studio’s 1960-62 anthology series Thriller hosted by Boris Karloff. For a 2010 home video release, extras included permitting viewers to listen to Goldsmith’s music only for episodes he scored.

Wilson (whose title was either “musical supervisor” or “music supervisor”) also brought on John Williams to work on the 1960-62 series Checkmate, a detective series created by Eric Ambler. It was one of the earliest credits for Williams. Williams was also hired by Wilson to work on the anthology show Kraft Suspense Theater.

Other notable Wilson hires included Morton Stevens, beginning with an episode of The General Electric Theater. The episode starred Sammy Davis Jr. Stevens worked for Davis as his arranger.

Wilson hired Stevens for the Davis episode of The GE Theater. That began a career switch for Stevens of scoring television shows. That included scoring the pilot for Hawaii Five-O and devising its iconic theme. Stevens also was a major composer on Thriller.

Other Wilson hires included Quincy Jones for the pilot of Ironside (resulting in the creation of another well-known theme) and Dave Grusin on a number of Universal projects. They included the 1968 television movie Prescription: Murder that introduced Lt. Columbo to television audiences.

Jon Burlingame, a journalist who has written extensively about television and film music, had a 2012 article in Variety when Universal named a street on its Southern California lot in honor of Wilson.

“Stanley Wilson Avenue connects Main Street with James Stewart Avenue on the Universal lot, not far from the now-demolished Stage 10 where its namesake conducted literally thousands of hours of music by young composers who would go on to become the biggest names in Hollywood film music,” Burlingame wrote.

On his blog, Burlingame wrote an additional tribute. “Wilson is an unsung hero in the film/TV music business.”

Wilson died in 1970 at the age of 54.

Albert Heschong: Wizardry on a TV budget

Albert Heschong-designed set for the 1968 pilot of Hawaii Five-O

One in an occasional series of unsung figures of television.

Albert Heschong (1919-2001) labored for years in the art department at CBS, working on the network’s in-house productions.

During Heschong’s career, that meant designing sets on a more economical budget compared with motion pictures.

Heschong succeeded. He received on-screen credits for live television dramas (Playhouse 90), filmed dramas, Westerns (including Gunsmoke) and sitcoms.

On occasion, Heschong could stretch his budget to create some memorable sets.

One of his best efforts was for the pilot to the original Hawaii Five-O series. That pilot, in effect combined spy-fi with police drama.

Villain Wo Fat has a futuristic laboratory housed inside an oil tanker. Wo Fat has devised a form of torture. Victims are deprived of the use of their senses while suspended in a shallow pool.

The laboratory is the first thing viewers see in a short pre-titles sequence. Toward the end of the sequence, viewers see what happens (the victim mindlessly screams) when they finally are let loose.

Naturally, the climax of the pilot takes place in the same set when McGarrett (Jack Lord) undergoes the same torture. Unknown to Wo Fat, however, the lawman has been programmed to impart false information.

Albert Heschong’s title card for The Night of the Raven on The Wild Wild West

Heschong also frequently worked on The Wild Wild West. For that series, which combined spies with cowboys, imagination was a must for the art department. The series frequently depicted “modern day” technology in the 1870s.

A major highlight for Heschong was the second-season episode The Night of the Raven. Arch villain Dr. Loveless has succeeded in shrinking his nemesis James West. Thus, Heschong and his crew had to create  sets where the miniaturized West (Robert Conrad) is menaced by spiders and cats.

Heschong’s work on the series meant he’d be brought back for the 1979 TV movie The Wild Wild West Revisited. For that, he retained his art director title.

However with the 1980 TV movie More Wild Wild West, he got the spiffier title of production designer, which more accurately reflected his contributions. Heschong’s credit also appeared in the main titles instead of the main titles.

Heschong’s career extended from the early 1950s into the 1990s.

Anthony Spinner: In-demand writer-producer

Anthony Spinner’s title card for Survival, the final episode of The FBI

One in a series about unsung figures of television.

Anthony Spinner, if anything else, didn’t lack for work as a writer and producer of television series.

His IMDB.COM ENTRY lists more than 20 producer credits and writer credits for more than 30 shows over decades.

Quinn Martin, the head of QM Productions, had an up-and-down relationship with Spinner. But Martin often turned to Spinner. As The FBI ended a nine-year run (with Spinner its producer for the final season), Martin immediately switched Spinner to produce Cannon.

At one point in the 1970s, Martin had Spinner produce two series at the same time — Cannon and Caribe, a kind of mix of Hawaii Five-O and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Caribe was a Miami-based police unit (Five-O) with jurisdiction throughout the Caribbean (multi-nation, similar to U.N.C.L.E.).

Still, Spinner had jobs beyond QM. Most notably, he took over as producer of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. in what would be its final season (1967-68). The episodes he produced took on a much more serious tone compared with the show’s campy third season.

Among U.N.C.L.E. fans, Spinner draws a mixed reaction. For some, his episodes represent a revival. For others, those episodes are too humorless compared with the show’s first season.

Spinner was also story consultant and later producer of Search, a one-season series on NBC (1972-73).

Search concerned a private organization, but the show had elements of spy shows of the 1960s. Operatives played by Hugh O’Brian, Doug McClure and Tony Franciosa took on cases while being monitored by monitored by crabby Cameron (Burgess Meredith).

Spinner also was the subject of an in-joke on Mannix. Writer Stephen Kandel, who had worked for Spinner on the QM series Dan August, named a hit man after Spinner.

The two would work together again on Cannon. One of their highlights: Spinner and Kandel worked together to rescue Cannon scripts during a fire at the Samuel Goldwyn Studios, according to the book Quinn Martin, Producer by Jonathan Etter.

James W. Gavin, ace pilot for TV and movies

James W. Gavin pilots a helicopter with Efrem Zimbalist Jr.

James W. Gavin pilots a helicopter with Efrem Zimbalist Jr. on board.

One in a series about unsung figures of television.

James W. Gavin over a long career in television and movies mostly went unnoticed.

The pilot/second unit director/bit part player was a top helicopter pilot. His services were in demand for various TV serious as well as films such as Vanishing Point and The Towering Inferno.

Gavin got a bit of recognition in the documentary Inside Diamonds Are Forever.

Screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz told the anecdote of how Gavin had the presence of mind to get the cameras rolling when explosions were set off for what was supposed to be a rehearsal for the oil-rig sequence.

According to Mankiewicz, some of that footage ended up in the final version of Diamonds.

On occasion, Gavin got to be an actor. Not surprisingly, he played pilots, presumably because it was cheaper to film him reciting lines while he was flying. In some cases, he was billed as “Gavin James,” rather than by his real name.

Gavin was one of the go-to pilots for QM Productions, flying helicopters for the company’s various shows, including The FBI.

Gavin died in 2005 at the age of 70.

Robert H. Justman: In the nexus of Star Trek, M:I, Superman

robert-h-justman-title-card

Another in a series about unsung figures of television.

This month is the 50th anniversary of both Star Trek and Mission: Impossible. One man links both. Not to mention The Adventures of Superman.

That man would be Robert H. Justman (1926-2008).

Justman was associate producer for the pilots of Star Trek (specifically, the second pilot, Where No Man Has Gone Before) and Mission: Impossible.

At the time, Desilu was a sleepy studio. Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball were divorced in 1960. Desi was handled creative efforts. Lucy was the no-nonsense head of business affairs. After the divorce, Lucy bought out Desi.

Over time, Desi’s absence had an effect. As older Desilu shows ran their course, the studio wasn’t able to replace them. By the mid-1960s, Desilu mostly rented out its studios to other production companies.

In early 1966, however, Desilu was getting its mojo back. It pitched two expensive series (for their time), Star Trek and Mission: Impossible, to television networks. Both sold.

Robert Justman suddenly was in demand. Both Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and Mission: Impossible creator Bruce Geller wanted Justman to work on their series. Roddenberry won out.

Earlier in his career, Justman worked on a show featuring another major character. He had been an assistant director on The Adventures of Superman, the 1950s series with George Reeves as Superman. He held the same post with The Outer Limits in the early 1960s.

Today, Justman is known mostly for Star Trek. Roddenberry made him part of his team when Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted in 1987.

Still, over a long career, Justman worked in a variety of genres, including a Philip Marlowe series and a TV version of The Thin Man. He was producer of Search, a spy-like series on NBC during the 1972-73 season.

Gene L. Coon: More than just Star Trek

Poster for The Killers, a pre-Star Trek credit for Gene L. Coon

Poster for The Killers (1964), a pre-Star Trek credit for Gene L. Coon

Another in a series about unsung figures of television.

For the purposes of this post, we’re stretching the definition of “unsung.” Gene L. Coon was a major figure for the original Star Trek series (where he was producer for part of the first and second seasons) and he’s mostly remembered for that.

However, the writer-producer performed work in other genres. That included 1960s spy shows, serving as a producer for some episodes of The Wild Wild West and It Takes a Thief. He also wrote episodes of war dramas and westerns.

Coon also did the script for the 1964 version of The Killers, with a cast headed by Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson and Ronald Reagan. The crew included composer John Williams.

The Killers was intended by Universal to be a made-for-television movie. What producer-director Don Siegel delivered was deemed to be too violent for the small screen. So The Killers got a theatrical release instead.

Coon had a reputation as a hard worker. He had an admirer in director Ralph Senensky. Here’s what Senensky said about Coon in a reply to a post about an episode of The Wild Wild West titled The Night of the Druid’s Blood:

I think Gene Coon is one of the unsung heroes of television. Both on this series and later on STAR TREK his work (and he was a rewriting machine) set a standard that elevated both series to levels that were seldom reached after his departure.

Coon produced only six episodes of The Wild Wild West near the end of that show’s first season (1965-66). The following television season, he joined Star Trek as producer, working under creator-executive producer Gene Roddenberry. Coon’s main task was to secure and produce a steady stream of scripts.

Coon’s major contributions included the Klingons and co-writing Space Seed, the episode that introduced Ricardo Montalban’s Khan character. Khan would be brought back twice (once with Montalban and once with Benedict Cumberbatch) as villains in Star Trek movies.

Put another way, Coon’s contributions had an impact on Trek productions long after he first made them.

The writer-producer continued into Trek’s second season but departed. He ended up at Universal’s television operation. However, he did some moonlighting, writing some Trek scripts under the pen name Lee Cronin.

One of them, Spock’s Brain, in which Spock’s brain is taken from him, still generates groans from Trek fans decades later. Well, everyone has an off day and the writing conditions (doing it on the side while working full-time at Universal) weren’t ideal.

Gene L. Coon died of cancer on July 8, 1973, just 49 years old. His final writing credit was for an episode of The Streets of San Francisco titled Death and the Favored Few. That show aired in March 1974.